National News

Nearly $1 million verdict in sexual assault of girl in Laos

Posted May 12

— A federal jury has awarded a woman nearly $1 million in a case against a former Minnesota man who she says traveled to her native Laos and sexually assaulted her when she was 14 years old.

Civil cases involving allegations of child sex tourism are rare, and the jury's verdict holds the man accountable for violating child sex tourism and child sex trafficking laws. The Associated Press is not naming the man because he was never criminally charged.

The woman, Panyia Vang, moved to Minnesota with her family after she became pregnant with the man's child. The AP does not generally name victims of sexual abuse, but Vang chose to speak publicly about her story.

"This verdict vindicates the courage Panyia Vang had to come forward with the truth and her pursuit of justice," said Patrick Arenz, one of Vang's attorneys. "The verdict also sends a message that sex tourism will not be tolerated. Any U.S. citizen who travels overseas to engage in illicit sexual conduct will be held accountable by a jury in federal court."

According to her lawsuit, Vang was an aspiring singer in the Laos countryside in 2006 when she believed she'd been offered an audition for a music video. She traveled 12 hours to the capital city of Vientiane, where an older Hmong-American man from Minnesota raped her repeatedly over three days in a hotel room.

"In a minute, my life changed," Vang testified at trial. "My body was ruined. My prospects for marriage, my family's reputation ruined. How could this happen?"

In a deposition, the man, who had a wife in Minnesota, said he wasn't worried if the girl was 12 or 13 because he paid her family $5,000 to be his "bride." He also said the sex was consensual, and later argued she was an adult.

Vang became pregnant and was bound to the man through a traditional Hmong marriage. She had his child in 2007 and moved to Minnesota in 2009, alleging in court documents that he threatened to keep her from seeing their child unless she submitted to his sexual demands.

The man's attorney, Der Yang, previously called Vang's allegations "disingenuous" and coming from a "disgruntled mother" who lost a custody dispute.

Vang, now 24, has full custody of the child. The man, now 54, lives in Missouri.

Even though the alleged assaults happened in Laos, the case was filed in U.S. District Court under a subsection of federal law that makes it crime for a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident to travel to a foreign country and sexually assault children, said Linda Miller, one of Vang's attorneys. The case was handled in Minnesota because Vang and the man both lived here at the time.

Miller said she hopes the verdict sends a message about the consequences of those who are interested in traveling overseas to have sex with underage girls.

"There are a lot of people who would like to go to Laos and have sex with children and they make excuses for themselves," she said.

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